Stop Policing Our Thoughts, Including the Hateful Ones

     

Presenting himself as part John Stuart Mill, part Uncle Sam, the Lib-Con deputy PM Nick Clegg last week launched his Your Freedom initiative for which he NEEDS YOU to help make Britain a ‘less intrusive, more open society’. You log on to the Your Freedom website, propose which nannying New Labour laws and other unnecessary legislation should be fed into the shredding machine of history, and who knows, says Clegg, ‘some of your proposals could end up making it into bills that we bring before parliament’. The ultimate aim, in Cleggspeak, is to ‘restore Britain’s traditions of freedom and fairness’.

Okay then. Leaving aside, for now, the small matter that freedom is better understood as a living, breathing thing that individuals exercise every day rather than as a tradition that the authorities must preserve on our behalf, spiked is going to take this initiative in good faith. Over the next two weeks we’ll call for the repeal of various acts of law, in the interests, not merely of restoring certain freedoms, but of clarifying what freedom is and why it is, in our view, the most important thing in society. And to kick off: Clegg, I want you to rip up the Racial and Religious Hatred Act.

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Introduced by the New Labour government in 2006, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act is an attack on what is for spiked the most important freedom of all, the freedom upon which all other freedoms are built, the freedom without which we cannot be free-thinking, free-associating, independent citizens: freedom of speech. The act captures the dual fear that has motivated the authorities’ many, myriad attacks on free speech over the past decade and more: their fear of ideas, which they consider to be toxic and virus-like, and their fear of the masses, whom they look upon as an easily stirred-up mob, a pogrom waiting to go forth and decimate.

Building on earlier acts of law that criminalised inciting racial hatred, the 2006 act makes it an offence to ‘stir up religious hatred’, too. It makes it a crime to use words or imagery – explicitly covering everything from placards to plays performed in a theatre to making a recording with the intention of distributing it – which intend to ‘stir up hatred against persons on religious grounds’. The use of any ‘threatening words’ or ‘display of any written material’ which is designed to spread hatred of a religion or its adherents is banned and punishable by a fine or prison sentence.

One of the most striking things about the religious hatred legislation is how determined New Labour was to introduce it, and how keen it was, initially, not only to criminalise the ‘stirring up’ of hatred but also any potentially hurtful criticism and ridicule of a religion and its followers. New Labour first floated the idea of criminalising religious hatred and ridicule after 9/11, when it predicted, wrongly of course, that there would be an outbreak of mob madness against Muslims. After much wrangling, and boosted by another, post-7/7 panic about anti-Muslim uprisings (which again was wrong), New Labour finally introduced the legislation in 2006.

But its outrageously Orwellian desire to make it a crime to ridicule religion was defeated – by comedians, campaigners and, unfortunately, the House of Lords – and the final act contains a clause pointing out that nothing in the legislation ‘prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents’.

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July 14, 2010